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A Brief History of Peaks Island

During the latter decades of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century profound changes occurred in American society. Large numbers of people moved off the family farm to work in factories in or near urban areas. They were joined by millions of immigrants, primarily from eastern and southern Europe. Regular work hours and a steady paycheck allowed many of these folks to seek recreational activities to fill their leisure time away from work - a new phenomenon for the working class. At the same time a growing middle class began to spend a portion or even the entire summer away from their city homes.

Almost overnight dozens of seaside resorts sprang up along the New England coast. One of those was Peaks Island, Maine. Peaks had been settled by a handful of families (the Bracketts, Trotts, Trefethens, Sterlings, Woodburys, Parsons and Skillings) who supported themselves by fishing, farming and catering to visitors from the local area who came to fish, picnic and camp. They provided campgrounds with fresh water and outdoor cooking facilities and, sometimes, lodging in their homes. As the number of tourists increased, the families and those to whom they sold or leased land began to establish businesses which catered to the needs and wants of summer visitors.

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By the 1890's ten hotels were in operation at Forest City and six at Trefethen-Evergreen at the opposite end of the island. They ranged in size from the 10 room Fisher Lodge to the 60 room Peaks Island House. The latter may well be considered the best known of the island hotels. It featured gourmet dining to the strains of a string quartet and a large verandah where guests could enjoy cool ocean breezes and the sunset over Portland Harbor. Demand for lodging was so great that nearly 700 summer cottages were built to supplement the hotels.

In addition to hotels and cottages, the Greenwood Garden Amusement Park, and three summer theatres were located in Forest City. One, the Pavilion, opened in 1887 and is said to be the first summer theatre in the country. A second, the Gem, featured famous performers including the Barrymore family and Rudy Vale. Greenwood Garden sported the Greenwood Garden Playhouse, a midway, a prairie dog display, and many other amusements.

The streets of Forest City were lined with all types of restaurants and shops and were filled with thousands of visitors all intent on having a good time. Street performers like Professor Oldwie, who walked on water, added to the carnival-like atmosphere.

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In contrast, Trefethen-Evergreen developed into a reserved and quiet family area with no commercial entities except a grocery store, post office and the Dayburn Casino which hosted dances, card parties, musicals and the like. The two villages were separated by forest and farmland but were connected by a boardwalk which ran from Greenwood Garden to Trefethen Landing, a distance of about two miles.

A dozen steamboat lines served Casco Bay at that time; nearly all of them stopped at Forest City several times a day during the summer season. Only a few stopped at Trefethen. The similarities between New York's Coney Island and Peaks Island did not go unnoticed by the press. Local newspapers dubbed Peaks Island, the "Coney Island of Maine", with good reason. Both were conveniently located and easily accessible via public transportation; both featured all types of entertainment for both the middle and working classes; and both offered short and long term lodging for those who could afford it.

As automobile ownership became commonplace and roadways were extended to areas that had previously been inaccessible, the popularity of Maine's Coney Island declined. Today this fascinating era is but a memory.

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The Maine Lobster Bake Co.
P.O. Box 15412, Portland ME 04112
207-828-6374

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